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Time to rein in Russian trolls on social media

Examples of Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process.
Examples of Facebook ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process.JON ELSWICK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Another day, another report — two this time — on how badly Americans have been duped by Russian trolls and turned against each other in a social media cyberwar that the United States continues to lose. The question remains: What are we as a nation going to do about it?

The findings of one report by the Senate Intelligence Committee have already appeared in The Washington Post. A companion report, commissioned by the committee and written by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm, was released Monday.

Both deal with the depth and breadth of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election through the use of social media. But more than that, the reports expose a shocking level of American naivete about what constitutes “news,” a disturbing but not so shocking level of racial animus in this country, and the extent to which our own tribalism can be exploited. It also turns over the rock of this nation’s social media giants and explores the extent to which they will dissemble to control their empires and market share.

The reports focused on the work of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, already indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team for interfering in the 2016 election. The Senate report found that, between 2015 and 2017, some 30 million users of Facebook and Instagram shared IRA-generated posts. Facebook posts were shared 31 million times and generated 39 million “likes.”


The New Knowledge report found that while the IRA also made use of Twitter and YouTube, its eventual weapon of choice became Instagram, where its troll accounts generated 187 million hits. About 40 percent of the agency’s Instagram accounts had at least 10,000 followers. “The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets,” the New Knowledge report found.


Police-involved shootings in particular provided ample fodder for disinformation campaigns. It went from there to direct voter suppression. “NOT VOTING is a way to exercise our rights,” said one Facebook post, on Nov. 3, 2016. “NO LIVES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON. ONLY VOTES MATTER TO HILLARY CLINTON,” read another, posted on Oct. 29 of that year.

The Russian effort remains ongoing — rather like a cybergame of whack-a-mole. A social media site goes dormant for a time, then reappears. “Over the past five years, disinformation has evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war,” the authors wrote.

And for all of our techno-smarts, this nation remains at a disadvantage. “It is precisely our commitment to democratic principles that puts us at an asymmetric disadvantage against an adversary who enthusiastically engages in censorship, manipulation, and suppression internally,” the report noted.

Still there are things that can be done. A better-
informed and more social media savvy public is, of course, critical. But just as crucial is a collaborative effort between government and the new techno-giants.

The heads of some of the platforms involved — the report is particularly critical of executives of Facebook and Google — need to be more forthcoming with data than they have been to date. The authors also promote a “multi-stakeholder model,” writing, “The United States government has departments with decades of experience managing foreign propaganda and espionage. . . . Robust collaboration between government agencies, platforms, and private companies is key to combatting the threat.”


There are no fewer than 17 intelligence agencies from which to choose — from the FBI and CIA to the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Many have cybersecurity in their portfolios as well.

The report’s suggestion calls to mind the post-9/11 pleas for intelligence agencies to work together to “connect the dots.” Today, some of those “dots” are private entities that must be brought to the table. The future of this democracy may depend on it.